When You’re Strange

When_Youre_Strange_jpg_470x408_q85 Paul Theroux in the NYRB:

Until I went to live in Africa, I had not known that most people in the world believe that they are the People, and their language is the Word, and strangers are not fully human—at least not human in the way the People are—nor is a stranger’s language anything but the gabbling of incoherent and inspissated felicities. In most languages, the name of a people means “the Original People,” or simply “the People.” “Inuit” means “the People,” and most Native American names of so-called tribes mean “the People”: For example, the Ojibwe, or Chippewa, call themselves Anishinaabe, “the Original People,” and the Cherokee (the name is not theirs but a Creek word) call themselves Ani Yun Wiya, meaning “Real People,” and Hawaiians refer to themselves as Kanaka Maoli, “Original People.”

As recently as the 1930s, Australian gold prospectors and New Guinea Highlanders encountered each other for the first time. The grasping, world-weary Aussies took the Highlanders to be savages, while the Highlanders, assuming that the Aussies were the ghosts of their own dead ancestors on a visit, felt a kinship and gave them food, thinking (as they reported later), “They are like people you see in a dream.” But the Australians were looking for gold and killed the Highlanders, who were uncooperative. The Lakota, Indians of the North American plains, who called white men washichus, Nathaniel Philbrick writes in The Last Stand, “believed that the first white men had come from the sea, which they called mniwoncha, meaning ‘water all over.’” In an echo of this accurate characterization, and at about the same time, the historian Fernand Braudel tells us, “To West Africans, the white men were murdele, men from the sea.”

Otherness can be like an illness; being a stranger can be analogous to experiencing a form of madness—those same intimations of the unreal and the irrational, when everything that has been familiar is stripped away.